The Woman Behind the Law

by: Sarah Kess

September 8, 2012

As an area manager at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Lilly Ledbetter did the same work as the men around her. Her paycheck, however, was not the same.  Ledbetter was paid 40 percent less than four of her male peers, all of whom held the exact same job she did.

The story ends well: In January 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. But the journey from Goodyear to the White House was a long one. She’s guaranteed a place in history books as an important player in fair pay legislation, but who exactly is Lilly Ledbetter?

Lilly Ledbetter at the DNC

Ledbetter was born in Alabama, in a house with no running water or electricity. A wife and mother, she began working at Goodyear in 1979. At a time when most women at the company pursued secretarial work, Ledbetter was the only female area manager at the plant.

She says she first learned of her pay discrepancy when she found an anonymous, handwritten note in her mailbox before the start of a 12-hour shift. The note, which listed the salaries of Ledbetter and her male colleagues, revealed that she earned the lowest monthly income of $3,727. Ledbetter had been paid less for nearly two decades. Because her pension was tied to her salary, Ledbetter would receive substantially less money into retirement.

“I am treated, in my pay, like a second class citizen for the rest of my life,” Ledbetter reflected recently in an interview with Democracy Now!.

She sued and won, though Goodyear appealed the verdict. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in Goodyear’s favor, saying that Ledbetter should have filed suit within 180 days of her very first unequal paycheck.

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s minority opinion urged Ledbetter to continue to fight, and invited Congress to take action.

Initially introduced by House Democrats in 2007 and defeated in 2008, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was eventually passed by the House and Senate in January 2009. On January 29 of that year, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act became the first bill signed into law by President Obama. The Act, which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, states that each paycheck starts a new accounting period, thus ensuring that an employee has 180 days to file claims after each paycheck.

When Ledbetter spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, she summarized what her long struggle had been about:  “This fight became bigger than Lilly Ledbetter. Today, it’s about my daughter. It’s about my granddaughter. It’s about women and men. It’s about families. It’s about equality and justice.”

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